The early years of American history are often characterized as intrepid, noble times, when stalwart men and women sailed for months across the Atlantic and carved out their niche in the new world.
And while there are some stories that are this way, there are many stories of colonists that were misinformed or let down by those in power and ended up in awful situations.
The Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the latter stories.
They were one of the first attempted settlements to have been created in what would eventually become the United States. But the settlement only existed for three or four years before they vanished entirely.
Though there are multiple plausible theories, what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains unknown.
History and The First Colonists of the Roanoke Island
The Roanoke Colony was sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, though he never actually visited it. He had been granted a charter to colonize North America by Queen Elizabeth I on March 25, 1584.
It specified that he must establish a colony or lose his rights to the land. The venture was also meant to draw wealth from the new world and establish a base from which Raleigh could send privateers to raid treasure fleets coming from Spanish settlements in the Caribbean.
Even the initial exploration went badly. While they were scouting some of the mainland coast and native settlements of what is modern day North Carolina, Europeans blamed the natives of a village called Aquascogoc for stealing a silver cup.
In retaliation, the settlers sacked and burned the village. This incident was chronicled in the reports of a writer named Richard Hakluyt, who compiled them from accounts written by the settlement’s various financial backers.
Despite bad blood with the local native Americans and a chronic lack of food, it was eventually decided that a man named Ralph Lane and 107 others would be left to establish a colony at the northern end of Roanoke Island.
Sir Richard Grenville, who was leading the expedition, promised to return in April 1586 with more people and supplies. The group that was to stay behind disembarked on August 17, 1585, and built a small fort on the island.
April 1586 came and went, but there was no sign of Grenville or his promised relief. Meanwhile, that June, bad blood that stemmed from the initial burning of Aquascogoc brought an attack down on the fort by local native Americans, which the colonists were able to repel.
Soon after that, Sir Francis Drake, who was returning from a successful raid in the Caribbean, stopped by in the colony and, seeing their desperate situation, offered to take the colonists back to England with him. Many accepted his offer and introduced several new things to England on their return, including tobacco, maize, and potatoes.
Grenville and the relief fleet arrived not long after Drake departed with the colonists. They found the colony abandoned, and thus decided to leave just 15 men to maintain an English presence and protect Raleigh’s claim to colonizing the New World.
The Second Colony
In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to send a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony in nearby Chesapeake Bay. This expedition was led by John White, who was a friend of Raleigh’s. He’d also been appointed governor of the eventual settlement.
The group also had orders to stop at Roanoke to pick up the group of men that had been left there by Grenville the previous year.
They arrived on July 22, 1587, and to their surprise, there was no trace of the men except for a single skeleton. No other bodies were discovered, and there were little to no signs of a struggle or any other foul play.
The master pilot, Simon Fernandes, then refused to let the colonists back onto the ships; instead insisting that they establish their new colony on Roanoke Island, instead of their initial destination of Chesapeake Bay. His reasoning for this remains unclear, but nonetheless, the settlers ended up staying on Roanoke Island.
John White successfully re-established relationships with the nearby Croatan tribe, as well as other tribes in the area. Unfortunately, who that had fought with the previous settlers refused to speak with him. Shortly after, a colonist named George Howe was killed by a Native American warrior while searching for crabs in the Albemarle Sound.
Frightened, the settlers persuaded Governor White to go back to England and plead for help from the government. He left in late 1587, leaving behind 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children, including his newborn granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in the Americas.
John White’s timing proved to be abysmal. It was known that crossing the Atlantic at that time of year was incredibly risky, and he was lucky to make it back to England. Once he was there, though, his problems began.
Initially, his plans to send a relief fleet back to the colony were delayed by his ship’s captain refusing to return during the winter months, and then by the Anglo-Spanish War, which required every seaworthy English ship to join the fight.
John White was, in essence, stranded until the spring of 1588, when he managed to acquire two small vessels and immediately sailed for Roanoke.
Unfortunately, his attempt was thwarted when the captains of the ships he had hired decided to try and capture several Spanish ships during the voyage to increase their profits. The English ships ended up being captured instead, and their cargo was seized. With nothing to bring back to the Roanoke colony, they were forced to return to England. The conflict with Spain prevented White from mounting another resupply attempt for three years.
He finally gained passage on a privateering expedition that was organized by John Watts and Sir Walter Raleigh – who, apparently, had not made any attempts to assist the colony that he established in any way before this point. They agreed to make a stop in Roanoke on the way back from raiding Spanish settlements in the Caribbean.
White finally landed in Roanoke on August 18, 1590 – what would have been his granddaughter’s third birthday. But, to his astonishment, he found the settlement completely deserted.
Gone Without A Trace
The state of the Roanoke Colony puzzled White and the men who accompanied him. All of the houses and fortifications that had been there when he left had been dismantled, which meant that the settlers’ departure had not been unexpected or hurried.
White had instructed the colonists before he left that, if something did happen to them, they should carve a Maltese cross into a nearby tree to tell him that they had not left of their own free will. They found no cross, but they did find the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fencepost on the outskirts of the settlement, and the letters “C-R-O” in a nearby tree.
White took these clues to mean that the settlers had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island – now Hatteras Island – but was unable to conduct a search because a massive storm was forming in the area. He was forced to return to England with the privateering ship.
It would be twelve years before Sir Walter Raleigh, apparently with nothing better to do, decided to find out exactly what had become of his failed colony. He sent another expedition in 1602, led by Samuel Mace. This trip differed from the others, in that Raleigh went to the trouble of purchasing his own ship and guaranteeing the sailors’ wages, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to engage in privateering to increase their profits.
However, Raleigh was still concerned with making a profit, and allowed Mace’s ship to land in the Outer Banks multiple times to gather aromatic woods or plants such as sassafras that would fetch a nice price when brought back to England.
These activities took so much priority that, by the time the sailors bothered to turn their attention towards finding the colonists, the weather had turned, and they were forced to return to England without ever even laying eyes on Roanoke Island.
By the time they returned, Sir Walter Raleigh was again tied up with other matters; this time, being arrested for treason.
There was one final expedition that attempted to locate the Roanoke colonists; it was run in 1603 by Bartholomew Gilbert. Their intended landing point was Chesapeake Bay, but bad weather made them land in an unspecified, but nearby, location. The landing team, which included Gilbert himself, were killed by a group of native American warriors on July 29, 1603 for unknown reasons.
The remaining crew of their ships returned to England emptyhanded, and what they found, if anything, is lost to time.
Meanwhile, the Spanish were also trying to find the colony, but for a vastly different agenda. Knowing that Sir Walter Raleigh had intended that the colony be a base for privateering, they were hoping to destroy it.
Additionally, they were receiving entirely inaccurate reports of activities there, and were under the impression that the colony was either actually there, or more successful than it ever could have been. In 1590, they came across its remains entirely by coincidence, but assumed that it was just an outlying base to a larger settlement, which they believed to have been established in John White’s intended location, Chesapeake Bay.
But, just as support was distinctly lacking in White’s efforts to return, these men were also unable to get support from Spanish authorities for a larger venture into the area.
Tales of A Massacre
A little while later, in 1607, the Jamestown settlement was established. After the settlement was up and running, the English began undertaking efforts to get information from the nearby Powhatan tribe about the possible fate of what was now widely referred to as the “Lost Colony.”
The first definitive information that reached England came from Captain John Smith, who was the leader of the Jamestown settlement from 1608-1609. According to a story chronicled by Samuel Purchas, Smith learned from Chief Powhatan himself that he had personally conducted the slaughter of the Roanoke colonists shortly before the Jamestown settlers arrived. His reason was that they had been living with the Chesepians, a tribe that had refused to merge with the Powhatans.
By the spring of 1609, this information had reached England, leading King James and the Royal Council to be absolutely convinced that Chief Powhatan was responsible for the slaughter of their lost colonists. Another source backed up this claim – a book called The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia by William Strachey, who had been Secretary of the Jamestown colony from 1610-1611.
His account confirmed Smith’s report and added more details – he said that the colonists had been living peacefully with native Americans beyond Powhatan’s domain for more than 20 years when Chief Powhatan had suddenly massacred them because of prophecies brought to him by his priests. They predicted that people from the region that the colonists were living in and produced several English-made iron implements to substantiate their claims.
This version of events, and different permutations of it, persisted for more than 400 years without question. However, no bodies have ever been discovered, and there is little to no archaeological evidence to support this claim. It has also been suggested that the massacre that Powhatan described was actually conducted on the 15 men left behind by the first colonists, leaving the fate of the second colony unknown.
The Integration Theory
The most prevalent theory nowadays is that the colonists simply integrated with one of the local tribes – there’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence for this. Dr. David Beers Quinn theorized that Smith and Strachey’s accounts were partially correct – the colonists had indeed moved north to integrate with the Chesepians that Chief Powhatan had claimed to have killed.
He theorized that they made the journey using their pinnace and other small boats to transport themselves and their belongings. Naturally, if this was indeed the mode of transport that they used, they could have gone to multiple other places as well.
In her 2000 book Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, historian Lee Miller poses another, however similar theory: that the survivors sought shelter with the Chowanoke people, who were then attacked by another tribe that the Jamestown colony identified as the “Mandoag”. This is an Algonquian name commonly given to enemy nations, and thus the identity of the attacking tribe is in question. They are believed to have been either the Tuscarora people or the Eno, also called the Wainoke people.
The claim that the people integrated with a native American tribe is given credence by a document known as the “Zuñiga Map”. It was named for Pedro de Zuñiga, the Spanish ambassador for England at the time, who secured a copy of the map and gave it to Philip III of Spain.
The map itself was drawn in approximately 1607 by a Jamestown settler named Francis Nelson. Notes on it state that “four men clothed that came from roonock” were living in an Iroquois settlement on the Neuse River.
William Strachey wrote later that the native American settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen contained two-story stone houses, and claimed that the natives must have learned how to build them from the Roanoke colonists. Of course, it is possible that both of these cases are actually sightings of some of the men that were left from the first colony.
Reports that lend themselves more to being of the settlers from the second colony are those of European captives in various native American settlements during the same time period. Another report penned by Strachey in 1612 said that four English men, two boys, and a girl had been sighted at the Eno settlement of Ritanoc, under the protection of a chief called Eyanoco. He reported that the captives had been forced to beat copper, and that they had fled an attack on the other colonists and escaped via the Chaonoke River (present day Chowan River).
Later on, there were multiple reports of tribesmen that claimed to have had white ancestors. In his 1709 work A New Voyage to Carolina, John Lawson wrote:
A farther Confirmation of this we have from the Hatteras Indians, who either then lived on Ronoak-Island, or much frequented it. These tell us, that several of their Ancestors were white People, and could talk in a Book, as we do; the Truth of which is confirm’d by gray Eyes being found frequently amongst these Indians, and no others. They value themselves extremely for their Affinity to the English, and are ready to do them all friendly Offices. It is probable, that this Settlement miscarry’d for want of timely Supplies from England; or thro’ the Treachery of the Natives, for we may reasonably suppose that the English were forced to cohabit with them, for Relief and Conversation; and that in process of Time, they conform’d themselves to the Manners of their Indian Relations.
From the early 17th to middle 18th centuries, European colonists repeatedly reported encounters with gray-eyed native Americans that claimed to have descended from the Roanoke colonists. Records from French Huguenots who settled along the Tar River in 1696 indicate that they met blonde haired, blue eyed members of the Tuscarora tribe not long after their arrival.
Considering that Jamestown was the nearest European settlement and they had no record of ever being attacked by the Tuscaroras, the likelihood that these fair-skinned natives descended from members of the Lost Colony is high.
More Theories, More Questions
Other theories include narratives where the Spanish did find and destroy the colony. This is unlikely, considering the Spanish were still looking for it as late as 1600, ten years after White discovered that his colonists were missing.
There is also the fascinating narrative posed by artifacts known as the Dare Stones. From 1937 to 1941, a series of inscribed stones was discovered. They were claimed to have been created by Eleanor Dare, daughter of John White and the mother of baby Virginia Dare. These stones told of the travels of the colonists and their ultimate demise. Most historians believe that these are a fraud, though there are still some today that think that the first could be genuine, based on its differences in linguistic and chemical makeup from the others.
In 2007, The Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded by a group led by Roberta Estes, the owner of a private DNA testing company. The purpose of the project is to solve the mystery using historical records, migration patterns of local tribes, oral histories, and a mixture of Y chromosome, mitochondrial, and autosomal DNA testing. As of 2016, they had not been able to positively identify anyone who’ve descended from the colonists.
In May 2011, a discovery was made by Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation while he was studying a document known as the Virginia Pars Map, which was made by John White during his 1585 visit to the island.
Lane noticed two patches where it appeared that the map had been corrected; they were made of paper that was slightly newer than the rest of the map. An investigation was sparked when he asked researchers at the British Museum in London, where the map had been kept since 1866, what was underneath the patches.
On May 3, 2012, members of the Foundation and representatives of the museum made an announcement at Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They announced that they’d discovered a “large, square-shaped symbol with oddly shaped corners” visible on the map when it is viewed on a light box. Some scholars think that the colonists relocated to that location, which is now called Salmon Creek in the community of Merry Hill in Bertie County, North Carolina.
There were additional digs on the site in 2012 and 2014, but there has been little conclusive evidence found.
A Tragedy Lost To Time
Whatever happened to the colonists of Roanoke Island, we may never know. What we do know is that Sir Walter Raleigh, for his own greed and gain, sent almost 300 people into an inhospitable place and offered them no help to survive afterwards.
The first colony was fortunate enough to escape this fate, but the second colony was likely not as lucky. We can only hope that the 115 missing simply lived out their lives amongst native Americans, rather than dying of starvation or being murdered by other tribes. In any case, their tragedy is likely lost to time.